It is almost 30 years since Bruce Springsteen sang about his cable-connected TV having ‘57 channels and nothin’ on’.
Springsteen, a great chronicler of suburban dreams and the frustrations of ordinary American life, may well have a different take on the world of TV if he was writing that lyric now. The equilibrium at play in his song has been tipped in another direction, with more and more distribution platforms being brought into existence. Everything is on these days, whenever you want it.
Today’s consumers are living in what has been described as a golden age of programming and choice, but are increasingly required to sign up to multiple platforms to keep up with their favourite shows or must-see TV.
If you want to follow the general bad behaviour of the media mogul Roy family, then HBO’s Succession is on OSN Streaming. Hightown, the American crime drama, is on StarzPlay, Squid Game, the show everyone is talking about, is on Netflix. I Know What You Did Last Summer, the reboot of the 1990s film, is out now on Amazon Prime. The feel-good series Ted Lasso, meanwhile, is on Apple+. Each one comes with its own price of admission.
Sports rights are just as fractured.
The World Cup T20 cricket is being shown on, among other platforms, CriiicLife via a StarzPlay subscription. If you are a football fan, you may pay for a Bein Sports or Etisalat eLife pass to watch the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, but you will have to stump up extra cash to catch the big international tournaments, such as Euro 2020 earlier this summer or the Fifa World Cup next winter. UFC fight fans will need a subscription to watch UFC 267 this weekend. The recent boxing bout between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder was shown on Fight Sports Max. F1 and rugby rights are to be found elsewhere. The list goes on.
This kind of slice-and-dice approach to content comes with a mixed blessing.
Consumers get maximum choice, of course. Sports fans can choose to only pay for the content they want. Indeed, Etisalat and StarzPlay are offering single match packages during the T20 tournament for less than Dh5, which is excellent value for money. Signing up for the entire championship costs around Dh100.
Most of us are familiar with the alternative, which was entering into a year-long contract with a single provider of a range of sports, entertainment, news and movie channels. That’s fine up to a point, but subscribers end up paying for the channels they don’t watch, rather than the ones they do.
The breaking up of entertainment and sports rights into smaller parts is also a harbinger of the growing subscription economy of our times.
Where a decade ago, our monthly bank and credit card statements may have listed a single entry for our satellite TV subscription – which almost certainly cost more than most consumers regarded as fair value, but was at least only one payment every few weeks – now those same documents are probably littered with the micropayments and smaller monthly charges that many of us willingly sign up for.
Experts say that is a fast growing sector and the subscription era is upon us. A UBS report earlier this year, expected this market to grow by nearly 20 per cent a year globally until 2025. Most software is now also purchased via monthly or yearly recurring licence fees.
Regular small payments for services offer convenience, but there are significant downsides to all this.
In the can’t wait, won’t wait instant access world we live in, how many free subscriptions have you signed up to that have since turned into regular monthly payments that passively drain your bank account?
I suspect many of us would be unable to instantly say precisely how much we spend every month on subscription charges for streaming, software, apps and more. Forget kicking the daily coffee habit that personal finance experts regularly cite as the way to reduce your monthly expenditure, the real drain on our wallets these days are these small and frequent subscription payments.
If you’ve ever tried cancelling one of these services, then you’ll also be aware that some entities provide an opaque mechanism to end the agreement, involving a multiple click through experience and, in all likelihood, the levying of a fee for breaking it. That stands in marked contrast to the near single-click, free-for-an-initial-period, sign-up experience that customers get easily hooked by in the first place.
The multi-platform, multiple monthly payment world is here to stay – and no one could or should make the case for the alternatives, which are to hitch your wagon to the piratic world of illegal streaming or to go back to inefficient content monopolies – but the legitimate providers could make a significant improvement to their payment and sign-up methods.
The best operators in this area communicate before they charge and make it stress-free and simple to unsubscribe. All subscription services should seek to meet these basic standards and play fair with customers. If they don’t, a follow up Springsteen song might end up being ‘57 subscriptions and nothing left in my wallet’. And no one wants that.